|text by Rikey Cheng
Despite mainstream astronomers’ negative views on astrology, I combine ideas from astronomy with those of astrology. The physical sciences focus on empirical facts and verifiable theses, whereas pseudoscience deals with illogical predictions and unavoidable destinies. In my mind, they work together perfectly. It is this combination that informs my art.1
An Illustrated History
In 1183 Italian esotericist Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) had a vision: the whole understanding of truth is to be found in the Trinity.2 He believed that the progress of history as the past, present, and future corresponded to the phases of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He also believed that each of these phases can be divided into seven stages, which correspond to the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation. Joachim’s thought inspired many theologians, who were searching for the temporal divisions in history, and who believed that the Bible was the only blueprint for historical development. Joachim speculated that the period of the Spirit would end in 1890. Of course, he was wrong. However, his imagination has bequeathed to us an elegant and profound model, which integrates history, the
ontological world, and the spiritual world into one diagram.
In Joachim’s thought, Heaven (the Trinity) and the secular world belong on the same teleological and chronicle structure of time. Moreover, disparate temporalities closely correspond to one another linearly or cyclically. History is the product of a series of human creations, including writings. The supposition “as above so below” is a fiction. However, our aim is to develop an effective model of history that does not rely upon God’s blueprint, cosmic beginnings or eschatological endings, but rather encapsulates the entire universe, even that which is beyond our understanding. For the early Christians, the notion of The Big Bang would not have replaced the Trinity. So when considering the Trinitarian Circles, we will emphasize interpretability rather than factuality.
The esotericist vision of history and the universe will help us comprehend Yin-Ju Chen’s three related works – As Above, So Below (2013-2014), Liquidation Maps (2014), and the newest, Action at a Distance (2015). Each of these works already provides meaningful clues in its visual presentation and narration, but we can extend our imaginations to a physical space (As Above, So Below), to the inner shelter of a spiritual world (Liquidation Maps), and to an auto-integrated triad or trifold model (Action at a Distance).
In Action at a Distance, the trifold model is presented as a three channel video installation -- a common form in visual art. To illustrate the transition of the macrocosm (outer space) to the microcosm (particles), Chen presents the modern physicist’s imagination of the world with 3D animations and other simulations. She then constructs an ontological model of the universe (contra the physicist model) by utilizing highly condensed images, symbols, and texts, assembled from the various disciplines of physiology, astrology, astronomy, history, and physics (especially quantum mechanics).
Like One Universe, One God, One Nation (2012), Chen’s new work retains or even intensifies the incongruities between science and pseudoscience. These incongruities can prove to be confusing, because the model that Chen builds is also not ostensibly, completely accurate. If we interpreted every single incident and event shown in this work, we would eventually realize that the work’s meaning
cannot be reduced to a sequential series of single events. Like Joachim, what the artist wants to convey is not the precision of history; instead, she is claiming that we can only grasp the essence of history after encountering its own counterevidence.
Furthermore, the work’s detached visual style belies an extremely personal experience -- an experience that was externalized, and then transformed into a journey of introspection.
Looking back on the series, we see that the very first chapter, As Above, So Below, was inspired by the artist’s surgical experience.3 Perhaps we can compare her own personal journey to Joachim of Fiore’s 1183 vision. Alienated from her own body, she started adapting elements of advanced astrology into her own works, especially the metaphors and aspects of the planets that represent surgery (Mars, Saturn, and Uranus).
In As Above, So Below, the most striking image is that of a surgeon dispassionately cutting into an unknown creature. In modern medicine, our bodies are merely machines. When a problematic organ is decayed or has broken down, we simply repair it or replace it. According to this view, the human is no longer a holistic entity that breathes, talks, thinks, and expresses joys and sorrows. Our bodies are simply complex constructions made from an assortment of mechanical parts. Modern medicine externalizes and objectifies the human body, and this is exactly what Uranus implicates in astrology. For these reasons, self-reference motivated this series of works.4
Following the western adage “as above, so below,” the artist learned that the microcosm echoes the macrocosm, and that alchemy, astrology, and quantum physics are all intimately interrelated. In other words, the microcosm and the macrocosm are symbiotic. But only with astrological research, which relies on definitions, can we prove the principle of correspondence through collective consciousness? Or, is it possible to expand one’s individual consciousness into a collective perception or identification?
In her second chapter, Liquidation Maps, Chen’s human focus has expanded greatly, and this might have been the result of a transiting Neptune returning to Pisces. In this project, Chen presents five Asian massacres and/or civil wars as five enormous hand-drawn mandalas accompanied by astrological charts and sacred geometry. The drawings’ expressive and healing sentiments are also metaphorical
interpretations of Neptune. This work presents a typical Pisces — the opposition of the physical body to its spirit, and the emotional thread connecting personal trauma to the will to purify the masses. Caught within these contradictions, the artist started on a journey that began with memorializing and witnessing, but eventually led to spiritual sheltering. This healing path also placed the viewer on a
pendulum swinging between the materialism of history and the idealism of the individual.5
Consisting of five charcoal drawings and an assortment of documents, Liquidation Maps is not quite like Chen’s other projects. It is so ostensibly different from the first and third chapters, which focused on video, that many people might not recognize Liquidation Maps as a conceptual extension of As Above, So Below. Moreover, utilizing astrological symbols, we can replace the first chapter with Uranus, the second with Neptune, and the third with Pluto. The first chapter, like Uranus, indicates self-renewal; the second chapter suggests healing, and the third chapter, like Pluto, delineates the porous conceptual boundary between science and pseudoscience. Pluto, as an astrological entity, pushes to the extremes of human knowledge, while also scraping at the bottom of the archives, to reveal the profoundest connectivity between human beings.
Astrologically, Pluto also implies obscurity and uncertainty, which are reflected in the recent debates over Pluto’s astrophysical, planetary status. Since Pluto also indicates total destruction and then rebirth, experienced interpreters are unable to precisely articulate the sign’s meaning or predict its future influence. This predictive inaccuracy echoes Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics. So here again, we see an interesting coincidence: the dualistic and contradictory Neptune from the second chapter resumes its collective dimension in the third chapter, and then goes even deeper, into the thrilling and unpredictable universe.
The Purpose of the Universe?
Seeing Chen’s works through the lens of the Holy Trinity or understanding her art with astrological interpretations of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, we realize that an unintentional universe does not exist.
Chen uses a massive amount of scientific and objective materials to support a scientifically indefensible point of view. This is exactly how most contemporary artists often frustrate; you cannot comprehend what a work really means by glancing at its surface. However, with the development of cybernetic epistemology, champions of scientistic objectivity and verifiability might need to recognize “interdependency” in the quantum age (or what you might want to call the “Age of Aquarius”). Or, perhaps the individual/collective dichotomy is false. To really consider this, we may still need to objectify ourselves, and perhaps if scientists were able to experiment on and vivisect their own souls to really see how they work, then we might finally combine objectivity and subjectivity.
Whether or not the universe has a purpose, Action at a Distance is related to the varied and enigmatic Pluto – the rock that often gives the astronomer and the astrologer headaches. It also seems likely that this wide-ranging and insightful investigation into the self/collective split will not be her last, otherwise she would not fulfill Pluto’s mysterious reputation. Chen reminds me of C.G. Jung, who also wandered into different disciplines, some very different from his own. In fact, C.G. Jung’s theory of individualization could help us understand Chen’s unconventional cosmic vision. His views on causality, teleology, and synchronicity are in fact critical to fully deciphering this artist’s intentions and works, and his theories reveal that a shortcut to understanding the purpose of the universe is also a path to our own hearts and souls.
1 Art4d.asia, “Yin-Ju Chen’s One Universe, One God, One Nation,” 20 June 2013, located at http://art4d.asia/interviews-detail.php?id=248
2 Bernard McGinn, The Calabrian Abbot: Joachim of Fiore in the History of Western Thought (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1985), 22. 1985: 22.
See also David A. Wilson, The History of the Future (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2001).
3 “Based on my recent operation and its accompanying medical issues, I am embracing science and pseudoscience, and exploring Paracelsus’ idea of the mystery of the macrocosm (nature) and the microcosm (human).” Chen briefly and simply mentioned surgery only once; however, we could already see that she had started to alienate and externalize her body in the video.
4 In astrology, Uranus means revolution, drastic physical change, and modern technology. It also suggests “self-reference.”
5 Rikey Cheng, “A User Guide to Internal Maps,” Artitude, December 2014: 82-83.